In October, Judy Chambers was charged with keeping a public nuisance structure for drug activity.
In December, that charge was dropped because, according to a filing by Assistant State Attorney Jarred Patterson, “while probable cause existed at the time of arrest, there is insufficient evidence to proceed with further prosecution.”
It wasn’t the first time that law enforcement had a problem with activity at 40 First Street in Eastpoint.
In May 2019, Chambers was charged with, and found guilty of, keeping a place where drugs are illegally kept, sold, or used, a third degree felony.
But when Sheriff A.J. Smith went in last month to serve an injunction on Chambers that ordered her as owner, and tenants Jason Shuman and Marty Chisholm, to vacate the property, it wasn’t to arrest them and cart them off to jail in handcuffs.
Rather, it was based entirely on a civil action, and the injunction signed by Circuit Judge Jonathan Sjostrom was part of a civil process that government officials, and even private citizens, can use to get rid of what they can convince a judge are public nuisances.
“It’s a very rarely used statute,” Apalachicola attorney Ethan Way, who represented Smith in the civil proceeding. “This is something that doesn’t happen very often.”
What Florida Statute 60.05 says is that anyone can sue to force removal of a nuisance by taking action against those maintaining it, as well as the owner or agent of the building or grounds on which the nuisance exists.
In his complaint, Way contended all three defendants were involved in drug abuse, and specified that Chambers and Shuman were both facing felony drug charges.
It said the sheriff’s office had “routinely and frequently had to address criminal activity and public safety concerns at the property.
“The property is a drug house,” read the complaint. “Drug use and abuse continues on the property. Individuals continue to come to the property to abuse drugs.”
It went on to say that “the property is, and continues to be, an eyesore and open junkyard.”
The defendants were served a first notice to abate the nuisance on Oct. 8, and a second one on Oct. 20. In November, Way asked that Sjostrom order a permanent injunction that would require the three to vacate the property, and put a lien on the property for costs, including paying Way’s legal fees. One condition of the civil law is that in the event that a judge finds no reasonable grounds for a plaintiff to have taken such a nuisance abatement action, they can be ordered to pay the defendant’s legal fees.
Chambers does not appear to have had legal representation when on Jan. 11, she wrote Sjostrom to ask for a re-hearing of the injunction the judge issued against her four days earlier.
She wrote that “the main damage to the property was done upon my (absence). The property has been cleaned and we have been cleaning surrounding property as well.
“I have been a resident of Franklin County for 48 years, this is my only (residence),” she wrote. “This eviction will bring on undue stress and expense to me. I have lived in this home for 25 years and have the same neighbors for 48 years this time. My neighbors disagree with this injunction as well.”
Chambers’ letter made no mention regarding the allegation of drug activity.
Following a Jan. 20 Zoom hearing, in which Chambers was present, Sjostrom denied her request for re-hearing.
A little more than two weeks after the injunction had been issued, Smith took action.
“My job is to protect the health and welfare (of the county’s citizens) and if I find somebody won’t quit selling drugs and clean up their mess, (I will act),” said Smith. “There were people living in a shed and tents and defecating on the ground. Piles and piles of filth and trash and garage. Who wants to live next to that?”
Way stressed the sheriff’s action did not compel a property forfeiture. “The sheriff did not seize the property,” he said. “They (Chambers) can hire a mover and put them in storage. They could sell or lease (the property). She just can’t live there using that piece of property for a drug house.”
Smith said he plans to go after Chambers for the cost of his legal fees as well as all other damages.